I sighed as I entered my apartment and carelessly dropped my keys on the kitchen table with a loud thud. Tired, sleepy, and aching all over from training…I was hardly in the mood to go out and party tonight, even if it was to celebrate my own birthday. After filling a glass of water for myself, I plopped down on my couch, completed drained. But when I began drinking the water, feeling a bit refreshed as the cool liquid eased down my throat, I recognized that my lethargic state was not all physical. My gaze drifted away from the cup in my hand to an object on the top ledge of my bookshelf, hidden away in the shadow where I had intentionally placed it.
It was the last picture I had taken with my mother and father, a candid shot of my twelfth birthday. My parents had actually left work early that night to celebrate with me at Emmy's. My father had bought the biggest birthday cake any little girl could ask for. I set the glass down on the coffee table and walked over to the picture frame. I had sat between my mom and dad, gigantic birthday cake before me as I blew out the candles. Dad had a goofy look on his face and Mom even smiled for this picture. I had been so happy that day, not because it was birthday but because I felt like we were a normal family that night…if only for an hour. My fingers began to tremble even before my hand stretched to touch the pink frame emblazoned with the words, We love you, Sherry.
I pulled back my hand and covered my mouth instead, willing a silent sob to pass. If I had known that all my birthdays after that one would be spent in government custody, within sterile white walls and emotionless company, I would have cherished it so much more.
I hastily walked over to my window for another distraction. The snow was falling harder than ever, paving the streets silver under the streetlights. Though my apartment was warm and I still had not taken off my coat, I found the need to hug my body with my arms, feeling empty and cold as the element January brought about. I checked the time on my cell phone. It was getting to close to nine, and if I did not start getting ready soon, Helena would start calling me again. She, Leon, and some other agents and colleagues on my team had planned a surprise birthday party for me, though it wasn't much of a surprise when Leon had accidentally leaked out that information during dinner one night when he was drunk. I was not sure why he had so many drinks that night, but I could only assume that his reasons probably linked to Ada, as most were.
Thinking about Leon and Ada and the emptiness that she left in his heart suddenly brought Jake into my thoughts. We had gone our separate ways seven months ago when my mission was finally completed. I remembered he accompanied me to the airport and was uncharacteristically quiet. I was too that day, wondering if I would ever see or hear from him again, knowing that it was going to be for the best if I erased his existence so he could be free and out of global security's radar. There was a lot I had wanted to tell him before I walked away. Mainly, I had wanted him to know that he saved me just as much as he thought I saved him. The months I had spent with him…I felt more confident, meaningful, human.
But I had only left him with a friendly hug and my true thoughts stifled within my chest. I missed him today more than ever, just like with my family. I was expected at the Serenity Catering Hall in thirty minutes for my first normal birthday in fifteen years, but I would just be walking into a room full of people who would only magnify my loneliness.
I stayed by the window for a few more minutes, not entirely sure what I was waiting for. Hair and makeup were not going happen magically; yet, I found no drive to leave my spot. The panes rattled lightly as a powerful gust of wind swept by, reminding me of the night Jake and I had sought reprieve at an abandoned cabin. The fire he had built for me was warm and comforting, but even more so was his presence, another human contact in the midst monsters and nothingness. I believed we finally 'clicked' that night, and for reasons I had not known at the time, I trusted him enough to reveal the most traumatizing experience of my life.
I wondered where he was right now, what he was doing, probably because there were so few people I had come to care about. The ones I did had left me a long time ago. I turned slowly back to my family picture, my mood souring fast. I jumped, startled, when my phone suddenly rang in my pocket. I thought it was probably Helena again, so I was a little surprised to find that a blocked number was calling me. Hoping that it was not another stupid advertisement call, I picked up with an annoyed "Hello."
No one answered on the other side. "Hello?" I repeated again. No one spoke, but there was definitely someone there. I strained to listen to the sounds in the background—soft creaking and what sounded like a bench sliding.
Before I could interject again, music blared over the phone. Not just any music, it was the distinct sound of a piano, its notes full and sweet. It sounded like an improvisation of some kind before the emergence of an all too familiar tune—Happy Birthday. I breathed deeply as I listened to the piece, a simple song that was intricately played, quick notes chasing one another, sharp contrast of dynamics profound and beautiful. I was not much of a musician, but I didn't need to be one to tell that a lot of passion and soul were put into the playing.
I sniffled, knowing all too well who was on the other end of the line. I bit down on my lower lip and wiped tears from my eyes as each note made my heart dance. Music truly was the greatest communicator. The song slowly drifted to a finish, the last note fading out but not from my memory. I breathed heavily into the phone, willing myself to contain my excitement and emotions, and then I heard him breathe with me, each inhalation and exhalation synched with mine. He said nothing more and the line suddenly disconnected, leaving me longing for that sweet melody again…but I knew he had his reasons. This was the safest way. At least I knew he was okay. And though I still had no idea where he was, he didn't feel too far from me now.
I turned to the window and caught a reflection of my smile. Somehow, Jake always knew how to lift my spirit.
I checked the time on my cell phone again. I had a little less than twenty minutes to get to my party. With no time to change and do my hair and makeup, I grabbed my keys and left my apartment, hoping that the guests would forgive me for wearing jeans and a white tee to a banquet.
It didn't take long at all for me to find the catering manor, as the building was brightly lit with remnants of soft Christmas lights that pulsed like a beacon in the midst of the foggy, wintry night. I quickly parked my car and made for the front entrance, where a young lady with a pleasant smile checked in my jacket. The floors of the corridors were marble and immaculate, casting off the golden aura of the manor. Though the place was not very big, it was extravagant in décor. With chandeliers and candelabras at every turn, I felt like I was walking through a small castle. My boots eventually left the marble flooring and sank into a trail of red, plush carpet.
Helena was the first to call out to me when I entered the double golden doors that lead into main party hall. There were about twenty people in the room clapping and cheering me on as I entered slowly, bashful and awkward. I felt like a nervous child all over again, one who was about to give a presentation in front of the class. I had always hated being in the center of attention, so I was relieved when Helena came up to me and pushed me towards a table filled with Italian dishes—my favorite. Thankfully everyone else went back to chatting and eating, their merry laughter spilling throughout the room and echoing off the walls.
"Thanks Helena," I said with a grin, genuinely heartfelt at the extent to which she had gone in planning for my birthday. Though we had just met very recently, we quickly became friends, especially after what happened in China. She felt like an older sister to me, even though she was younger. "You look great!" Helena was wearing a long green dress that complemented her skin and eyes. Her long hair was pulled into a loose bun. Simple and elegant.
A light blush tinted her cheeks, and she dismissed my compliment with a wave. "Thank you, and you look like…" She paused for a moment, trying to find the right words to describe my messy hair, my dirty t-shirt, and casual jeans.
I laughed. "Sorry, I didn't have much time to change. Was really busy," I told her, which was the partial truth.
I did not even notice Leon until he walked up behind Helena. Though he was just in a casual dress shirt and black slacks, he looked sharp and handsome. "Happy birthday, Sherry. Sorry I ended up ruining the surprise for you," he said with an apologetic grin, and then lifted a can of soda in his hand. "I'm gonna behave tonight," he said with a wink and then went to prepare a plate of food. "You ladies should eat before I finish everything here!"
"Eat, Sherry, eat!" Helena's eyes sparkled as she also began filling her plate.
I shook my head and smiled. "You guys go on ahead! I need to go to the bathroom and fix myself up. Feeling kinda embarrassed that I look so shabby at my own birthday party."
"That doesn't matter. Honestly, we're just glad that you're here…not sure if you were going to make it," Helena said softly, and I could tell from her eyes that she understood my predicament and somber mood. Leon must have mentioned my past to her, but I didn't mind at all. I was just grateful for a friend like Helena, someone caring and understanding, letting me heal at my own pace.
I forced a smile. "Thank you, now go on! Save me a plate, will you? I'm gonna run to the bathroom and um…powder my something."
I didn't let her say anything else and ran off to the restroom.
I had been sitting in the powder room for ten minutes now, just staring at myself in the vanity mirror before me. No makeup done, didn't brush my hair, clothes not a speck cleaner. I traced my face with my fingertips, feeling my smooth and even skin. I was twenty-seven today, yet I did not look my age at all. I breathed out deeply, wondering what it would be like to always have my youth when everyone else moved on with their years. Forcing my mind out of pensive thoughts, I searched my purse for my makeup. The last thing I wanted was people running in here to look for me.
I started with my lip gloss, but half way through painting my lips, I had to stop. A faint piano piece echoed down the hall outside. I frowned, realizing that the music earlier was an orchestrated number and certainly not live. The piece was powerful and alluring, beckoning me like Siren. I placed my lip gloss back into my purse and my feet dragged my body out of the rest room and down a corridor on the other side of the party hall, a corridor I had not seen earlier. My body felt like it was locked in a trance, my heart thundering with the heavy descending runs. My legs moved faster, and I felt like I had to keep going to catch up with the speed of the song, wherever it was taking me.
The music grew louder as I broke into a dash, and the notes began to sound too familiar. I had heard this piece briefly. Jake had played it to solve a crazy puzzle when we were in China—
The corridor that seemed to stretch on forever finally ended with a simple wooden door at the end. The notes were pulsing so much now that I thought the doorframe had begun vibrating. I placed my hand on the knob, my heart telling me that I was in for a surprise before I could even anticipate for it.
I pushed open the door and practically dived inside—
—and that was when I saw him, sitting in front of a black upright piano, looking more handsome and dangerous than ever.
He reached the end of the piece and set his hands on his lap. The room was dark. There was no lighting except for the soft beam of the moon and the streetlights that cast their ghastly glow through the tall, glass windows of what looked to be a storage room.
But even in the dark, I could tell that he was nervous. His fingers clung onto the fabric of his pants and his eyes flitted side to side. But when his gaze finally reached my face, I had to turn back and make sure that I wasn't followed by some hot supermodel. That look of hungry awe…surely he couldn't be looking at me like that, but reality slowly dawned upon me that he was. The stretch of distance between us made me feel compelled to move forward. I took one hesitant step, and then another—and before I could even call out his name, I was already in his arms, my body sinking into his comforting embrace. He flinched ever so slightly and suppressed a grunt, and I knew what lay beneath his black sweater were wounds from whatever battles he was now fighting, alone.
"Surprise?" he whispered, resting his chin on top of my head.
"You…had this planned all along?" I whispered back, too afraid of speaking any louder for fear of shattering this fragile, precious moment.
"A month ago with Leon and Helena. They knew all along. I'm glad Leon didn't spoil that part of the surprise."
I laughed softly and wrapped my arms tighter around his neck, so very aware that he smelled wonderful. "I guess that was you over the phone before, huh?"
"You have to ask? Happy birthday, Sherry. You're gonna have to forgive me for not wrapping your present."
"What are you talking about?"
Jake nodded towards the sleek Yamaha piano. My gasp caught in my throat as I stared at the ivory keys, shiny and tantalizing beneath the moonlight. "Jake…" I was at a lost for words, but luckily Jake wasn't.
"Don't worry, it'll be shipped to your apartment and someone will come help set it up for you. Leon said you just moved into a new place, so I'm gonna assume there's still room for it."
Breathless, I pulled myself away from him with great effort and sat down on the piano bench. Jake moved next to me, his fingers flexing rapidly over the keys. I wasn't sure if he was showing off or just messing around with the keys. Either way, his skills were impressive.
"Remember you told me in China you've always wanted to get a piano and take lessons? So, I'm gonna give you some lessons. Better be ready to study hard."
"Um? What? No? I never said that…" I replied, thinking hard to recall those words but that memory never came. A few moments later when I looked up at him and saw his shy smile in the shadow, I realized that this was Jake's way of expressing that he wanted to spend more time with me. I grinned back. He was easier to read these days, cuter to mess with, so I decided to play along.
I ran my finger over the keys, playing my horrible rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Stars again. "Looks like I have a lot to learn," I teased. Our laughter rang in the darkness like bells, the walls echoing our mirth. But then I stopped when I saw his left hand on the piano. The skin was rough, marred with burns and deep scratches that had not been there the last time I saw him. "How long can you stay to teach? Probably not a permanent thing, huh?" I asked quietly, already wondering when he was going to take off. He had his own life to live and his own battles to fight, and I had to accept that I was not a part of either.
He sensed my concern and pulled his hand back, looking almost ashamed. "Can't say for sure at the moment and I can't talk about my current situation. Confidential," he remarked in a professional tone that surprised me. "But I'm here right now, right?" he asked as if testing whether or not that was good enough for me.
Honestly, no, but I shrugged and bumped his shoulder lightly. "That's what matters." I missed the days when he had been under my care and protection. As much as I wanted to look out for him, I couldn't because he wasn't able to talk about his new assignments. In the end, it came down to worrying sick about him or trusting that the kid could handle himself, and I already knew I should believe in the latter for both our sakes.
He smiled again, and I found myself melting a little inside at the hypnotic sight. "Answer me one thing though. How did you get so good with the piano?" I asked, just to change the topic.
Jake tilted his head and sniffed the air, his eyes cast towards the high ceiling. "My mom was a pianist. She taught me a little when I young but had to stop when she got sick. So, she ended up hiring some jack-of-all-trades guy named Billy who happened to be a brilliant pianist. Charged us dirt cheap and had a neat tattoo. I was surprised that he was willing to teach some little kid. He seemed like someone who had bigger fish to fry, places to be and people to see. I studied with him on and off for about two years, and then one day he just disappeared. I had always suspected he was a fugitive."
"Really? And to think my father wasted thousands of dollars to pay for seven years of lessons…and THIS is the end result."
"You just need a better teacher." Jake winked.
"Thank you, Jake. To be honest, I wasn't really expecting much for my birthday, since it's lost meaning to me for awhile now..."
"I know," he said, and I truly believed he did. "Just hope you feel like a special snowflake today."
Jake began playing Happy Birthday for me again and my spirit soared with the notes. I made a vow to myself that I was going to be just as good as him one day. For that to happen, I was going to need a lot of lessons, and I only had one teacher in mind.
I placed my palm over his wounded hand as he played, and noticed the tempo slowly falling to to a steady largo.
A/N: Just a short Jake/Sherry fic I wrote rather quickly for fun! I couldn't help throwing in the Billy Coen reference, as I thought it could fit into the timeline. Thanks for reading, everyone!